DES MOINES, Iowa — The governor and legislative leaders would have more power in selecting district judges and Supreme Court justices in Iowa under a new proposal from Republican lawmakers that advanced in both chambers this week.
The heart of the proposal---introduced early this week and moved out of preliminary subcommittee hearings in both the Iowa House and Senate just days later--- changes the make-up of who sits on the judicial nominating commissions, in an effort Republicans contend will make the system more fair.
“The goal is to continue to merit-based system and perhaps increasing accountability and transparency in that process," said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.
But critics argue the bill is a solution in search of a problem and warn it will infuse politics into an otherwise fair system.
“Implementing this as an agenda item for partisan politics where basically elected officials are making calls on the third branch of government---all the way down the line I don’t even think we know how far that’s going to get out of hand," said David Brown, the secretary-treasurer for the Iowa Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Iowa selects judges through a merit-based system, which was established by a constitutional amendment in 1962. Right now, the State Judicial Nomination Commission — the group tasked with nominating judges to sit on the Iowa Supreme Court—is made up of half governor appointees and half lawyers elected by other licensed attorneys. There are 16 total on the commission, with the most senior justice who isn't the Chief Justice serving as the chair of the commission.
Republicans pushing for change say the half made up of lawyers doesn’t have any voter accountability, which is why they favor the proposal giving more power to the governor and lawmakers.
Under the proposal, the governor would still choose eight members of the commission, and majority and minority party leaders in both chambers would choose the remaining eight. Additionally, the most senior justice would no longer serve as chair, to eliminate "any sort of perceived undue influence," according to the Iowa House GOP.
It would also change the make-up of the District Judicial Nominating Commissions.
At a Senate panel hearing Wednesday, conservative groups voiced support for the plan, arguing recent court decisions on issues like abortion were fueled by so-called judicial activism.
"You name it and the Iowa Supreme Court is on the left side of almost every issue," said Chuck Hurley of The Family Leader, a socially conservative Christian group. "As you well know, it doesn't matter if you and your fellow lawmakers pass good legislation if it's just going to be undone by activist judges exceeding their rightful constitutional authority."
Governor Kim Reynolds also voiced support for the proposal. Companion bills on the issue both moved out of a preliminary hearings in the House and Senate Wednesday.
“To me that seems like a very fair and thoughtful approach to moving forward," she said of the changes.